Catherine has been fiercely competitive and quite successful in everything she has ever tried to do. She was awarded academic and athletic scholarships, and graduated cum laude with a degree in electrical engineering from a major university. People have always assumed she was destined for greatness. The confidence that came from her many successes reinforced that idea in her mind. She was quickly discovered to be the cleverest technical problem solver on the team in her first job. On recommendation of her bosses, she was assigned to bigger and more complex projects whenever the opportunities arose. She thoroughly enjoyed the work and the challenge of dealing with difficult and multifaceted real world engineering problems. She was known to have exacting standards, and to be quite demanding of other team members, but she got along well with people.
Because of her outstanding work, she has recently been promoted to supervise a similar team in another department. Although this was quite a feather in her cap, she was reluctant to give up some of the interesting and exciting engineering problems she found so stimulating and challenging. Now she has a different sort of problem. She is disappointed with the quality of thinking and the general expertise of her new group. Things she had assumed would be in place appear to be severely lacking in this team. She finds herself having to redo their work on a regular basis. Although she is making a valiant effort to bite her tongue, she is rolling her eyes too often. This stuff is really much simpler than the work of her previous group, and she has a hard time understanding why they don’t seem to get it. By now, they should know what they’re trying to do, and shouldn’t need so much help from her. She finds herself wishing she didn’t have to worry so much about other people, especially those who seem so slow on the uptake. Perhaps her path to success should not include having to manage – and babysit – people?
You don’t need a shrink to tell you change is difficult. There are powerful dialogues and instincts inside all of us that conspire against us. Change involves letting go of something that has been of value, so it automatically triggers our fear of loss. Change can sometimes threaten our self-concept, releasing the previously mentioned forces of the law of consistency. It also involves expenditure of energy, to learn something new and to deal with all of the previously described forces of resistance.
Obviously, as you move up, you need to develop new skills and insights. Although the lessons learned from your previous lives typically work your advantage, they can sometimes work against you. There are certain skills and perspectives one must develop at each new level. Our natural tendencies are to rely too heavily on the knowledge, skills, and behaviors that made us successful in our earlier roles. But if you don’t make the necessary adjustments in attitude, behavior and focus, you won’t make a smooth transition. For each new level, success demands letting go of something that was previously of value and broadening your perspective.
From individual performer to supervisor of others
Self-management was earlier discussed as one of the three basic tasks of successful leadership (the other two being people and task management). As an individual performer, you are rewarded for being the most knowledgeable, clever, hardworking, and task-focused person you can be. However, when the job involves supervising others, you just don’t have as much time as before to invest in all those other areas. Now, the reward comes from helping others to be successful and relying on them for your own success. But it’s not easy to shift from actually doing the work to getting it done through other people. You must let go of some of the behaviors and activities that made you successful as an independent worker. You now must develop and apply your knowledge of motivation and behavior. This involves helping people settle conflicts, diagnosing performance problems, coaching them to work more effectively, and holding them accountable. Although you still might be responsible for many of the earlier activities, you have broader and more challenging goals.
This is a very difficult transition for many people, especially those who have a craft, technical, or professional specialty. It’s quite natural for them to feel a loss of security by moving to this level. The idea of losing one’s technical edge is threatening: especially if that person is unsure about the ability to direct and facilitate the work of others.
From supervisor of individuals to manager of managers
This transition involves retaining and applying everything you’ve learned as a supervisor, while shifting to a broader focus. The new skills required at this level are not quite as obvious as those necessary for success in the previous job. Assessment and selection of talent become more important. At this point, you are far removed from being able to be involved in individual contributions. Again, this level requires changes in your time allocation. You now need to analyze how to deploy resources most effectively to the various units under your supervision. What’s more, you need to help define and clarify boundaries between units to help settle conflicts, to facilitate efficiency and to foster better working relationships among your people.
Coaching becomes more important at this level, because your direct reports probably have very little formal training about their own new roles. They know how to be great individual contributors. After all, if that were not the case, they wouldn’t have been considered for promotion. Like Catherine, however, most of them are still wrestling with some of the changes in perspective, values, time allocation, and scope of vision you encountered in your own initial supervisory role. At this level, you can’t help people solve problems they encounter as individual contributors. You’re just too far away from that particular theater of operations. One of your major tasks in this role is to help others become more comfortable and effective delegating work, rather than trying to do it themselves.
From manager of managers to leader of a function
Depending on the size of your organization, this may be a position reporting directly to the CEO. Developing new ways of communicating becomes increasingly important at this point. There are now at least two layers of management between you and the individual workers. In addition to this, you might be managing departments with which you are totally unfamiliar. You are interpreting new data and judging how well it reflects reality. You must also communicate a clear and consistent message to everyone in the group, to help them understand the mission, values, standards, and goals that are important to the success of the organization.
The leader of a function must learn to understand and appreciate longer-term strategy. This involves understanding the other functions; and how each contributes to the current and future success of the organization. Here, you need to coordinate with your peers to clarify expectations, to facilitate a solid understanding of what each group contributes, and to define the standards, metrics, and criteria for success. Naturally, politics play a role as well: politics are part of every organization, and tend to become more subtle, yet more intense, as one moves up the organizational hierarchy. At this level, you are generally dealing with competent and ambitious peers, and need to develop even more effective negotiation and relationship management skills.
From functional manager to business unit leader
In smaller companies, this is the CEO position. If not, it usually reports to the CEO. In larger companies, it can report to an enterprise manager responsible for several different businesses. This is the P&L level, and here you have a great deal of autonomy and responsibility. In addition to the strategic and cross-functional perspective, now you must consider questions of risk, profit, and long-term results. This is one of the most challenging positions you could ever hold. It requires the ability to maintain a delicate balance of operations, strategy, financial acumen, and ever more complex and subtle communication and political issues. You must learn to be effective making trade-off decisions between the demands of future goals and current operational needs. The time pressures of short-term profit demands add an extra layer of stress.
Full success at this level requires that you understand and value all staff functions, some of which you might have considered adversarial in previous roles. A common mistake here is to overvalue one’s previous function, and to let old loyalties, alliances, and relationships cloud the judgment and impartial vision necessary for success at the business unit level. This is especially true if you have been promoted from your previous function inside the business you now lead.
Deeper reflection and analysis become much more important to the success of a business unit leader. This requires a major shift in time allocation. Planning for business success years in the future cannot be done on an ad hoc basis. It requires time for sustained analysis and deep thinking. At this level, you need to be able to connect the dots from a very wide range of sources, and to be comfortable with a broader and more far-reaching horizon. This is a major shift in thinking for most people, and it requires a concentrated effort to carve out the necessary time and space to do so effectively.
This role requires a keen ability to deal with a wide variety of external constituencies. Here, you must develop a good balance between internal and external perspectives and focus. You can’t be involved in every internal decision, so you need to be sure you are focusing on the appropriate mission-critical decisions. Now your scope is the organization as a whole: how it relates and responds to customers; the competitive landscape; the changing technological environment; and regulatory realities.
Successful internal leadership at this point relies heavily on clarifying your message, ensuring its appropriate communication, understanding and using the power of symbols, delivering good sound bites for message reinforcement, and making sure that your behavior is consistent with your words. It involves creating and maintaining a culture that will facilitate success. This is a complex task, and it takes time. It involves developing and communicating a clear and compelling vision, and making sure you have the right people to help you achieve it.
Relying on the knowledge and skills that made you successful at one level in the organization will not necessarily help you succeed at the next. In fact, if you rely too heavily on them, they can work against you. The successful journey up the food chain involves letting go of some things that have facilitated your progress so far, learning new skills and perspectives, and making sure you allocate your time appropriately.